Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Hunting in the Kankakee Valley, 1869

(from the Dec. 4, 1991, Lowell Tribune, page 15)

The following column was taken from a story dictated by E.W. Irwin many years ago when he was totally blind. Irwin spent much time in the Kankakee valley, especially in the Hebron area and near the Lake-Porter County line. He lived in the town of Chautauqua, New York, in the southwestern section of the state, on Chautauqua Lake.

"On the 18th day of October, 1869, during a blinding snowstorn, I drove 10 miles to Westfield, New York, a station on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad and bought a ticket to Chicago. [Westfield is northwest of Chautauqua.] I was going duck hunting," recalled Irwin.

Irwin did not know the exact spot in the Midwest where he was going to hunt, but decided to ask questions upon reaching Chicago. He had heard of gun store owner F.J. Abbey of South Clark St., where he was sure he could find some good advice.

"I found him a very genial and pleasant gentleman. I gave him my muzzle-loading gun to be rebored and furnished with new tubes for percussion caps." Mr. Abbey suggested that they take a walk to South Water St., the great game market, to see what they could learn about a possible hunting site.

"Upon arriving there, I saw a wonderful sight. Commission houses lined the street on both sides and wagon loads of game of all kinds were piled on the side walk and hung on the awnings; drays were constantly arriving with fresh supplies and hauling away that already sold. We stepped into the commission house of Joyce and Cunningham. I told the manager I was looking for a place for good duck hunting. He said, 'You go to Hebron on the Pan Handle Railroad, about 60 miles from here. There is the greatest duck and goose shooting I know of.'"

Irwin bought a 25-pound sack of No. 6 shot, a keg of powder, 1,000 Ely's felt wads and 1,000 percussion caps, and soon boarded the train for Hebron, arriving there about 11 p.m. He asked the station agent, Mr. Scott, about a place to stay, and was directed to a building on a knoll a little way south of the station where he was ushered to a room at the head of the stairs (it could have been the "Stagecoach Inn" now restored).

The next morning the landlord suggested that he go down to Harrison Granger's, an old duck hunter and trapper who lived on the edge of the marsh southwest of Hebron. After receiving directions for Granger's home, Irwin set out through the woods with his gun barrel through the straps of his valise, and the whole load on his shoulder. When he left the timber, he passed many ponds full of ducks and shot as many as he could carry. He was welcomed at the Granger home and was invited by his host to go back to their hunting camp before night fall.

"When ready to start we walked four miles east to Hebron Canal, entered Mr. Granger's boat, and started for the river, a short distance away. We began to see ducks the minute we entered the river. They were constantly in sight untli we reached the camp, mallards in the edge of the timber and open water ducks in the channel.

"We also startled several deer that ran back splashing through the water. We did no shooting as Mr. Granger said we would have no time to stop and pick up game that evening. We reached a high island called Indian Garden [on Range Line Road] where Beaubein and Sargent's camp was located. We met them just coming in with their boats loaded to the water with ducks and geese.

"Next morning we started on a job of clearing a trail to a marsh. When we entered the marsh a wild scene met our eyes. A northeast gale was blowing, whipping the tree tops which surrounded an open marsh perhaps three-fourths of a mile across. Ducks and geese were constantly pouring in from all sides.

"Mr. Granger put me on the first muskrat house he came to. He had not proceeded more than 75 yards before a large flock of brant came pouring over the tree tops directly in front of him. He gave them both barrels and I saw seven of them fall. That opened the ball and a million ducks and geese rose in the air and began to circle round the marsh thirty or forty feet high.

"A bunch of Canada geese came directly over me. I shot at the leader and killed him. I aimed at another when I saw the dead one falling directly toward my head. By quick work I managed to dodge him so I kept from being knocked off the rat house. In an hour's time we had three boats loaded with geese and headed back to camp. That was probably the first time a gun was ever fired in that marsh."

The next morning, while hunting with Granger, Irwin just missed being the victim of a fatal accident. While Granger was in the bow of the boat with a long push paddle, Irwin raised up from the boat and fired both barrels, when the wind forced the fire from his gun down into a leaking powder box in the bottom of the boat and ignited the powder. The resulting explosion blew everything out of the boat except a sack of shot and spread the bow of the boat flat.

At that time an old trapper by the name of Hunter Rice came down the river and helped to get the vessel to shore. The two men found a heavy brass charger from an exploding powder flask imbedded in the stern post, and which had to have passed between Irwin's knees and Granger's feet without touching either of the men! Irwin was invited to stay at Granger's as long as he wished, so he soon made it his hunting headquarters.

"I started out from Mr. Granger's house to size up the situation. I found Eagle Creek ditch which ran close back of the house in a straight line three miles, emptying into the Grand Marsh, to be about 16 feet wide and shallow enough to be waded in most places. The dirt from the ditch was piled on the left bank, or the side nearest the house.

"On top of the ridge was a wide cattle trail, making an ideal place to walk, Stepping down off the path on the landward side I could walk along until I came to the place where the ducks were feeding, without danger of being seen by them. Then carefully crawling up the embankment again, killing as many as possible. Then I'd wade in and bring the ducks out. The ducks were all mallards, widgeon and teal, all the finest kind of ducks for eating, and it was the finest shooting."

Irwin had his hunting dog shipped from his home in New York because he wanted to sell the animal to some interested hunters in the marsh area. But the dog was stolen, and Irwin found some important clues from a fur buyer named Fox from LaPorte. Fox told him that his dog was at Grape Island, and Irwin was determined to go find it.

"I said, 'I will be at Grape Island before morning.'" It was four miles to the Hebron Canal by road and 12 miles down the river to Grape Island.

"In my former trip with Mr. Granger he had shown me Grape Island on the south side of the river, with an open bayou standing back 100 yards or so to the camp. It was a bright, still, cold star-lit night. Mallard ducks were constantly flying up on each side and I startled deer two or three times."

When Irwin approached the camp at Grape Island, he could hear his dog barking and soon rescued him and paddled with difficulty back up the river in time for breakfast at Granger's.

"It was the 20th of December, the first snow we had that fall, it was a foot deep and badly drifted," Irwing said of the scene several weeks later. There was an Osage hedge a short distance from the house and the snow on the lee side of the hedge seemed covered with prairie chickens.

"Borrowing a white sheet from Mrs. Granger, I tied it over me and around me and started out. I soon had bagged five of them. I was now ready to return home as everything was frozen up and the duck shooting ended. I arrived home [in New York] just in time to have the chickens cooked for our Christmas dinner.

"At the time of which I write, conditions [in the swamp] were rapidly changing. The trapper was giving way to the shooter, and wealthy sportsmen from Chicago were flocking to the river in ever increasing numbers.

"The only place they could be accommodated were at the trapper's camps, and the only guides available were the trappers themselves. They owned the only boats on the river and knew every inch of the swamp and marsh. These sportsmen were able and willing to pay them prices they could not refuse. Mr. Folsom's Camp was situated at the extreme lower end of the swamp timber and thus commanded both timber and marsh shooting of the finest kind. He had a famous camp cook named Uncle Harl Seymour, an old forty-niner who could cook the best camp meal and make the best camp coffee I ever tasted. His camp was always neat and tidy and any shooter who could get accommodations at the old Red Oak camp was in luck." [Red Oak Island is west of the Range Line Road, near the river.]

Those "wealthy sportsmen" mentioned above soon had their own clubs up and down the old Kankakee, and hotels for hunters and fishermen were built a few years after hunter Irwin and his exciting adventure in the Kankakee Valley.

Irwin promised to return to Indiana, and he did come back late in March of 1870, when the ducks had all left for the North. Granger had moved away, so he boarded with William Fisher of Hebron. He visited in the area for a few days before returning to his home in New York.

Last updated on August 9, 2001.

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